WHAT are we artists going to do about reviewers?
We creative types typically hate getting reviewed. We’ve spent an awfully long time thinking about, and bringing to life, our work. We want people to like what we do, not merely from an ego standpoint but so that we actually might make a living at it. But at the end of our artistic endeavours often lies The Review. It is not merely an opinion about your effort; it can also affect attendance quite significantly.
For theatre practitioners, our ire tends to peak during the fringe festival, where a five-star review guarantees soldout shows. We then attend these critically anointed shows and can’t figure out what the reviewer was thinking. "It was a comedy," we surmise. "It was improv," we assert. "It was luck," we comfort ourselves.
At last year’s festival, there were 175 shows. Both the Winnipeg Free Press and CBC Radio reviewed all of them.
In only four days. To accomplish this task, these media outlets employed 31 reviewers. I don’t think it’s controversial to assert that you might be hard-pressed to find 31 credentialled theatre critics in New York City, let alone our humble burgh.
Is it unfair that someone who hasn’t read Aristotle’s Poetics — on which much dramatic theory is still based — is telling us what they liked in our plays? Perhaps. Don’t we have a right to complain?
Ultimately, I don’t think we do. No one asked us to produce a play at the fringe. We paid for the privilege and participants know their play will be reviewed. (In the early days of the fringe, not all plays were reviewed. The complaint from the artists then was that only the lucky ones got a review.) The truth is if we get a great review, we’re thrilled and feel vindicated. If we get a bad review, well, it’s a bit like hearing your newborn baby being called ugly to your face.
Except the insult is in black and white and thousands of people will read it.
The reviewer’s job is to relate their experience of seeing the play to their readership. As artists, we must accept this. In truth, as soon as our show has been reviewed, we scour the critic’s words to find the "rip quotes," those praising phrases that might help us market the play. Is it unfair of us to parse a reviewer’s work down to a sentence or two of pure praise? Maybe. Then again, that’s part of our job, selling our work.
My most successful play is Talk. When it premiered in Winnipeg in October 2007, it received 3½ stars in the
Winnipeg Free Press, which didn’t necessarily portend a promising future. The other reviews were about the same — good, not great. Yet the play’s progress was not impeded. I was fortunate enough that Playwrights Canada Press chose to publish the play, which led to it becoming a finalist for the Governor General’s Award in 2009. That accolade paved the way for future productions in Toronto, Ottawa and Jerusalem. I can look back at those initial reviews in a different light now. They weren’t the definitive judgment; they were specific reactions from different individuals based on the performance they witnessed. The critics were doing what they are paid to do.
The relationship between artists and reviewers is like the old Looney Tunes cartoon with the wolf and the sheepdog.
They go into work together, punch the time clock, and the wolf tries to steal the sheep and the sheepdog prevents it.
Artists may never be satisfied with what a critic writes, but without the artist, the critic won’t have anything to write about. We may eye each other warily from afar but best I can tell, neither of us is going away.
Michael Nathanson is a playwright and artistic producer of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre.